Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia, Inc

Enhancing Higher Education,
Theory and Scholarship
Proceedings of the
HERDSA Annual Conference
8-11 July 2007
Adelaide, Australia

Makoe, M. (2007) A phenomenological analysis of experiences of learning in the South
African distance education context, in Enhancing Higher Education, Theory and Scholarship,
Proceedings of the 30th HERDSA Annual Conference, Adelaide, 8-11 July 2007: pp 341.

Published 2007 by the
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the publishers at the address above.
A phenomenological analysis of experiences of learning in
the South African distance education context

Mpine Qakisa Makoe
The Open University, United Kingdom

This paper looks at the lifeworlds of 15 women who live in South African rural areas who by
virtue of being distance learners share educational experiences of learning through distance.
Distance learning takes place within different environments that are influenced by the social,
cultural and political fields in which a student lives. The aim of this study is to investigate the
conditions under which distance learning occurs and how they influence students’
experiences of learning. Giorgi’s phenomenological psychology analysis is used to explore
learners’ histories and aspirations as they negotiate the meaning they attach to their learning
experiences in a distance education context. In their narratives of their learning experiences,
the women in this paper are consistently struggling to reconstruct themselves as distance
learners and as members of the community that put a lot of pressures on them as “women in
the village”, “mothers” and “role models”. The findings suggest that lack of resources; the
distance between the institution and their homes; communication barriers between the
lecturers and the students; limited support from the institution and the community; and time
management affect their participation and performance in distance education.

Keywords: Distance education, phenomenological analysis, students experiences


Distance education was identified by the South African government as a system that can
expand educational opportunities and provide access to people who would not have had the
opportunities to study full time (DoE, 1996; CHE, 2004). Through distance education, poorer
students who live in remote rural places can have access to higher education without
relocating away from family and community (CHE, 2004). Since 1994, distance education
has been responsible for a large share of increased participation in higher education from just
over 104,000 head-count enrolments in 1990 to over 270,000 in 2005. Black students had an
overall share of 62.2% of distance programme enrolments. About 80% students were over 23
years of age, more than half were women (DoE, 2005). Distance education institutions
enrolments constituted about 36 percent of all higher education students in the country
(Glennie & Bialobrzeska, 2006). However, increasing access to higher education can only be
successful if distance education providers understand the varying contexts and needs of their

Distance learning takes place within different contexts that are influenced by the social,
cultural and political fields in which a student lives. The context is a dynamic concept that is
comprised of personal and environmental aspects that interact with one another. Cole (2003)
refers to context as a set of circumstances, separate from the individual, with which the
individual interacts and which are said to influence an individual in various ways. Context
provides the setting for examining experience while the environment and the community
shape learning. To understand the learning experience as a phenomenon, it is important to
consider the relationships between learning and education, political and economic systems of
the society (Grenfell & J ames, 1998). The aim of this paper is to report on South African
distance learners’ account of their experiences of learning. Giorgi’s phenomenological
method was used to uncover the meaning of learning as experienced by distance learners. The
aim is to answer the following key questions:
What are the experiences of learning for South African distance learners?
What are the conditions under which distance learning occurs?
Students learning is influenced by diverse discourses, representations, traditions, and legal
and moral customs which shape the way a person imagines and experiences learning
(Ratner,1991). The task of phenomenology in this regard is to investigate whatever is given,
that is, something that is perceived, remembered, represented in order to reveal its structure
(Giorgi, 1983, 1999).

Giorgi’s phenomenological psychology

The purpose of Giorgi’s phenomenological psychology research is “to capture as closely as
possible the way in which the phenomenon is experienced” (Giorgi & Giorgi, 2003b, p.27). In
Giorgi’s work, phenomenology is used to look for the psychological meanings that constitute
the phenomenon in the participants’ lifeworld. The idea is to study how individuals live, that
is how they behave and experience situations (Giorgi, 1985). Their descriptions are based on
their experiences within the context in which the experience is taking place. Central to this
research is the lived context of the individual. The meaning of the phenomenon such as
learning can only be revealed in its totality and its relationships with its particulars and
therefore essences can only be seen in every constituent of the meaning.

Learning as described by a learner should be viewed as an integral activity in and with the
world at all times. The distance learners’ experiences of learning are determined by their
interpretation of their environment. The aim is to elicit the experience of the respondents so
that the phenomenon of learning can be revealed. “The outcome of the analysis is based on
the psychological meaning discriminations performed by the researcher, and these are not
explicitly stated as such by the individuals having experienced it” (Giorgi & Giorgi, 2003a,
p.249). The role of the phenomenological analysis in this regard is to discern the
psychological essence of the phenomenon (Giorgi, 1985; 1989).

The process of research in phenomenological psychology starts with the description of a
situation as experienced in daily life (Giorgi, 1985). In trying to obtain these descriptions, a
researcher sets aside any prior thoughts or judgement about the phenomenon under study. In
so doing, the researcher brackets the phenomenon. The bracketing or the epoche is primarily
undertaken in order to reveal the personal reality of the individual for whom the phenomenon
under study appears (Ashworth, 1999). What need to be bracketed are those presuppositions
that have to do with claims made from objective science or other authoritative sources
(Giorgi, 1986; Ashworth, 1999). Phenomenology attempts to offer insightful descriptions of
the way the world is experienced prerefectively rather than the way is conceptualised,
categorised or reflected on (Van Manen, 1990). In this context, the distance learner is at the
centre of the inquiry. The idea is to explicate multiple ways of interpreting events for each
person and show how these interpretations constitute reality (Giorgi, 1986).

Participants and data collection

The analysis draws on semi-structured interviews conducted with 15 black women who live
in remote rural areas and who are distance learners at the University of South Africa
(UNISA), the oldest and the largest distance education provider in Africa. The average age of
women interviewed was 32 and most of them were working as teachers. A substantial number
of UNISA’s students are women who live in rural areas, although it is difficult to ascertain
this because statistics provided in education “are often not gender (and region) segregated”
(Sehoole & Moja, 2003, p.486). Secondly, being a woman made it easier for me to have
access into the lives of female students in the rural community. Thirdly, it is easier for
women of the same age groups to talk to each other than it is for other age groups. Age is
very important component in this culture; people tend to be more comfortable amongst people
of the same age range. From young age, children from the same sex and age are raised
together and it is within this group that people are allowed to challenge each other
(Sawadogo, 1995).

Data analysis

Data analysis was based on Giorgi’s phenomenological psychological analysis as described

Step 1: Getting the sense of the whole
The entire interview protocol was read several times in order to get a sense of the whole
experience. The idea was to obtain a description, not to explain or construct (Giorgi, 1989).
Giorgi (1986) and Wertz (1985) suggest that readers should see raw data as well as processed
data. However, it is not possible to present raw data as it is in this paper given the space

Step 2: Discrimination of meaning units
After going through the first step, Giorgi (1986) suggests that the whole description should be
broken into several parts to determine the meaning of the experience and these are expressed
by the slashes in the texts (Giorgi, 1985) or by numbering of lines (Wertz,1985 ). Parts that
were relevant to the phenomenon that is being studied were then identified. The process of
delineating parts is referred to as meaning units, they express the participant’s own meaning
of the experience, and they only become meaningful when they relate to the structure of all
units (Ratner, 2001). A word, a sentence or several sentences may constitute a meaning unit.
Each meaning unit is constituent and therefore focuses on the context of the text (Giorgi,

The meaning units are correlated with the researcher’s perspective and therefore two
researchers may not have identical meaning units (Giorgi & Giorgi, 2003a). This process
takes place within what is called reduction. It is important in phenomenological psychology to
withhold the existential judgment about the experience of the participant. For the purposes of
this study, the first 10 meaning units from Noma’s (all names have been changed to protect
the participant’s identity) interview data. Noma, who was one of the participants in the study,
has been studying with UNISA since1990. She completed her bachelor’s degree in 1998 and
she was doing a postgraduate diploma in education at the time of the interview.

Interviewer: What are your experiences as a distance learner?
1. What can I say ... about distance learning ... I think it is good.
2. There are disadvantages as you can imagine – otherwise I like it.
3. One of the main disadvantages is that if you are studying and you live quite far from the
4. you are always concerned with whether you are doing things right ... and you never
know where you are with your work.
5. There are many problems about … well I think the problems are about where you live ...
6. You see I live in the rural areas. I come from … one of the remotest rural villages.
7. When I started studying with UNISA, we didn’t have phones, we didn’t have postal
services, the roads were bad and we couldn’t drive – in fact, there were no roads to
speak of and there was no transport - you had to walk everywhere.
8. For postal services, we had to rely on the local owner of the shop who would take our
mail once a week when he had to go into the city.
9. It was very difficult to communicate during those days when we didn’t even have cell
10. This was such a big problem for me because he (shop owner) only went to the city once
a week and …

Step 3: Transformation of the lived experience into psychological language
In this step, the delineated meaning units identified in the previous step were transformed into
the “language of psychology that is currently tied to psychological perspectives
(behaviourism, psychoanalysis and so on)” (Giorgi, 1985, p.19). In the analysis, the
researcher looks for ‘perceptions’ and ‘emotions’ that are expressed by the participants’
description in order to come up with the findings (Giorgi, 1985). It is at this point that the
psychological intentions that are contained in the meaning of the description were developed.
This step involved a transformation where the participant’s first person own everyday
expression is changed into a psychological scientific language, which is in third person. The
idea was to interrogate the meaning units for what they reveal about the concept of learning.
A part of the delineated meaning units was used below to show the transformation process.

When Noma was asked about her experiences of distance learning…
She was not sure how to answer the question …after a long pause; she attempted to
clarify what she intended to respond to. She then decided to respond to the question on
distance learning. Although she considers distance learning good, she acknowledges
that there are disadvantages to studying at a distance – one of which had to do with the
geographical distance between the institution and the place where she lived.

Step 4: Individual description of the situation
After the transformation process, the meaning units of each description were then synthesized
in order to make a descriptive statement of the particular and specific characteristics of each
participant (Giorgi, 1989). The idea is to ensure that the “structure express the essential
network of relationships among the parts so that the total psychological meaning can stand
out” (Giorgi, 1989, p73). This step involves understanding, judgments of relevance, and
coherent organising; it draws implicitly on the special interest of the researcher (Wertz, 1985).

Since the interview is a conversation, descriptions of matter are usually not coherent and
sometimes they are not essentially related to the phenomenon that is investigated. What was
said about learning and being a learner tended to involve repetition, it jumped around,
backtracked, and thus the movement of the description did not coincide neatly with the lived
experience. It is at this point, where relevant constituents are put together according to their
intertwining meanings so that they can express lived experience. Although Meaning Unit 1-
10 did not express anything about the learning experiences per se, they were judged as
relevant in this case because firstly they gave an overview of Noma’s experience and how her
environment affected the process of learning. When Noma was asked about her experiences
as a distance learner, she reflected on it by giving a detailed picture of how her environment
looked like. People tend to reflect on the past when asked about their experiences. It is
through this description that we get the picture of what learning meant for an individual

This process included the context, the discourse and certain background knowledge that
makes the utterances identifiable and therefore calls for a good deal of prior cultural
knowledge (Ratner, 2001). This step was essential in terms of understanding, looking out for
the relevance and organising the structure coherently. However, this process was purely
subjective and there are no right or wrong answers.

Step 5: The general description of the situated structures
Once the description of the psychological structure of each individual had been identified, the
researcher looked at statements that can be taken as true in most cases. Although individuals
have idiosyncratic social experience, they are part of the practices and values that pervade the
psychological activity of most people (Ratner, 1991). It is at this point of the analysis where
each individual structure is compared to others to establish similarities and differences in
meaning constituents (Wertz, 1985).

From meaning unit 4 “you are always concerned with whether you are doing things right ...
and you never know where you are with your work.” Central themes such as “being
insecure” and “lack of guidance” were identified. These themes dealt with the feeling of not
having someone to turn to for help and thus render the experience of learning strange.
Identified themes from each participant are clustered into a number of general themes that
appeared to be common to all the participants’ descriptions (Pietersen, 2002). The idea was
to link identified themes to meaning units. Table 1 below shows meanings that belong to the
specific constituent of the experience of the learning regarding the environment in which
learning takes place.

Table 1: Description of the situated structure of the lived space experience

Situated structure of the experience Identification numbers of
Physical distance
No classroom
Lack of infrastructure - postal services, roads,
telephones etc.
Access to resources
Study material
Distance from the learning centres
Social distance
Contact with lectures
Studying without guidance from lecturers
Communication with lecturers
Telephone costs
Need for tutorials
Travelling time and accommodation costs
Lack of communication with other students
Study group
Lack of flexibility
Better suited for older students
Cater for younger students needs

S1, S7, S9, S10, S15
S1, S2, S3, S4, S5, S7, S10

S3, S4, S5, S7, S9, S10
S3, S5, S7, S8
S4, S7, S11

S1, S3, S9, S12, S15
S5, S7, S10, S11, S13
S1, S3, S8, S9
S1, S3, S4, S11, S15
S4, S7, S9, S12, S14
S2, S3, S7, S8
S1, S2, S5
S3, S5, S4, S8, S9, S10
S4, S15
S6, S9

Constituents of experiences

In classifying the general meaning units into themes, every meaning unit was put into a
specific constituent. It is important that the psychological analysis remain faithful to the
subjects’ statement (Ratner, 2001). The aim of phenomenological patterns is to describe the
aspect of the lived experience (van Manen, 1990). Based on this analysis, the experience of
learning for South African distance learners can be described in specific constituents of:
• the lived space: the physical environment in which learning takes place; the distance
between the area in which the learner lives and the institution and the availability of
resources in that environment.
• the lived selfhood: the experience of one’s character and personality in regards to her
psychological predispositions to the phenomenon under study.
• the lived time: the chronological dimensions of past experiences and how those
experiences have influenced the present and how they may affect the future
• the lived social relations: the experience of relationship with significant others; this
also deals with issues of support and communication.

The lived space
For most students formal learning takes place within the confines of a specific building – a
classroom. In conventional classroom teachers and learners, occupy the same space. In
distance learning, the physical space set aside for the learning activity is missing. As a result,
distance learning is in conflict with students’ existing conceptions of the environment in
which formal learning takes place. The issue of the geographic distance was raised by most of
the learners who resided in remote rural parts of South Africa. The participants in this study
felt that they are not only physically cut off from the institution, but deprived socially from
having contacts with other learners and lecturers.

Naledi: Sometimes I feel it would have been better if lecturers were close by or we
had regular tutorials. Distance is a big problem

The geographic distance and physical setting in which learning takes place impacts on
learners’ experiences. In this instance, it was helpful to inquire into the nature of the lived
space that renders that particular experience its quality of meaning.

The lived selfhood
This theme had to do with the relationship between the participants’ sense of identity;
psychological feelings; and their own presence and voice in relation to the phenomenon under
study. Students in this study are first generation university students in their families and
community and therefore, they do not have role models or anyone to share their experiences
with. They found that their sense of self in relation to their role as students is “fractured and
disabled” (Stevens, 2003, p.238). Most of them chose not to talk about their studies with
families and friends because they were afraid that they might be perceived as “proud”. They
were doing something that was not done by others in their community as a result they never
talked about their participation in higher education.

Lele: When there is an event in the village, you can’t tell other women that you have
to write an assignment or prepare for exam – they simply won’t understand. So you
are forced to abandon your schoolwork and attend to the community needs, and maybe
attend to your schoolwork later when you have finished your community duties.
Nobody really cares about whether you are studying or not…
Oh no, you can’t tell people that you have to attend to your school work, it may be
perceived as if you think you are better than other people or you are too proud to be
associated with people like them.

However, these women continued to study in secret because it gave them a sense of
empowerment and accomplishment. For these students, the personal benefits of learning and
acquiring a higher education qualification are associated with personal fulfilment, improving
oneself and upward social mobility.

The lived social relations
One area that students identified as problematic in their experience of distance learning was
lack of social relations with significant others. Almost all students in this study felt the need
to communicate especially with their lecturers. Students who do not make connections with
other students and lecturers feel isolated and stressed.

Ntombi: My biggest frustration is lack of communication, not being able to talk to
my lecturers. And not having resources, such as libraries, books, learning centres and
not having lecturers come down here and meet with us so that we can see who we are
dealing with. For now, I feel like we are forgotten by the university.

Most of the students reported lack of confidence in interpreting study material; lack of
guidance on how to go about with their studying; and lack of ability to ask questions
immediately as in face-to-face setting. These problems were further exacerbated by the fact
that most black students enter institutions of higher learning with little reading and writing
skills, and they are often not fluent and proficient in English, the language used in academic

To overcome this problem most learners reported that they turned to peers for support. Most
of them belonged to informal study groups because they needed someone whom they can
share their fears and aspirations with. It is in these groups where distance learners felt that
they could define themselves as learners. Group interaction is central to the way they learn in
their communities.

The lived time
Most women found that they had to juggle their schoolwork with competing priorities. Their
family and community commitments tended to take precedence over their time to study..
Several studies on women who study through distance attest to the fact that most women have
to shoulder multiple duties of work, study, family and community responsibilities (Heron,
1997; May 1994). Most of them study when they are finished with all other duties. Women in
other studies reported that they attended to their studies after everybody had been fed, looked
after, and gone to bed (May, 1994).

Zenani: Although there is no time – I try hard to make time. Whenever I find a little
time that, I could call my own I take a book and try to read two or three pages, usually
it means sacrificing my bedtime.

Despite all these women, seem to be grateful that distance learning accorded them an
opportunity to adapt their study schedules around their multiple activities.

Discussion and conclusion

When people talk about their experiences they refer to their previous perspectives, self-
perceptions, relationship shifts and how they developed the meaning of their new identity
(Stevens, 2003). What emerged in this study is that students’ experiences of learning were
viewed in relation to their hopes, frustrations, intentions and histories. For these students
distance learning was a lonely process where they felt physically, emotionally and socially cut
out. In the absence of communication with the people who are supposed to enhance their
experience of learning, they felt lonely, alienated, insecure and alone. To most learners in
rural communities, learning is a collective social process whereby a student feels the need to
interact with fellow students and teachers. Peers are the most influential group with whom
they implicitly negotiated their understandings of the study materials. It is in these groups
that “students are able to share their common beliefs about opportunity and education”
(Bempechat & Abrahams, 1999, p. 856).

For most students, the culture of learning independently without even meeting the person who
teaches them was extremely problematic. In most African cultures dependency relationship
are nurtured and strengthened between the child and the sources of knowledge throughout
childhood to adulthood (Sawadogo 1995). A learner feels very much depended on the teacher.
Independence reflects behaviours that only social rejects and marginalised individuals adopt
to express themselves. That is why most women in the study could not excuse themselves
from community duties because they were afraid that they may be viewed as “proud” or
“better than others”. In this context, people consciously avoid being labelled as such.
For rural distance learners, learning is a dynamic interaction between the individual and her
physical, cultural, social and political environment within which one interacts. The students
understanding of learning experience was based on complex structures of multiple contexts in
which human development takes place. In these structures, distance learners describe
themselves in distinct, discrete lived worlds which include the world in relation to the self; the
world in relation to the significant others; the world in relation to their environment; and their
world in relation to time. The phenomenological approach provided a useful perspective that
helped illuminate some of the most critical issues that affect the learning experience of South
African distance learners.
Through this analysis, it was recognised that the lifeworld of the learners was largely shaped
by the way they encounter and interpret the social process of learning in distance education.
The general structure of the experiences of students in distance learning emerged from the
identified themes. Giorgi’s phenomenological psychological method was useful in this study
because (1) it provided a rigorous and systematic analysis of distance learners’ experiences;
(2) it took subjective experiences as its main focus of study; (3) it clarified the essence of
being a distance learner in a remote rural setting. Through this analysis, we were able to see
how these women negotiated their understanding of themselves as distance learners in relation
to the environments in which they found themselves.


The author is grateful to the distance learners who participated in this study.


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